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Pure Land Buddhism

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Chinese temple bouddha

Amitābha Buddha and two bodhisattvas (Avalokiteśvara on his right and Mahāsthāmaprāpta on his left) in a temple near Meinong, Kaohsiung county, Taiwan

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Mahāyāna Buddhism

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Mahāyāna Sūtras

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Lotus Sūtra
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Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra
Avataṃsaka Sūtra
{{IAST|Śūraṅgama Sūtra

Mahāyāna Schools

Esoteric Buddhism
Pure Land • Zen
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Silk Road • Nāgārjuna
Asaṅga • Vasubandhu

Pure Land Buddhism (simplified Chinese: 净土宗traditional Chinese: 淨土宗, Jìngtǔzōng; Japanese: 浄土宗, Jōdoshū; Korean: 정토종, jeongtojong; Vietnamese: 浄土宗, Tịnh Độ Tông), also referred to as Amidism[1][2] in English, is a broad branch of Mahayana Buddhism and currently one of the most popular schools of Buddhism in East Asia, along with Zen (Chinese: Ch'an). In Chinese Buddhism, most monks practise it in combination with Chán or other practices.[3] It is a devotional or "faith"-oriented branch of Buddhism focused on Amitābha Buddha. The term is used to describe both the Pure Land soteriology of Mahayana Buddhism, which may be better understood as Pure Land traditions, and the Pure Land sects that developed in Japan: Pure Land Buddhism became a distinct sect/school in the Japanese medieval period (13th century, Kamakura period); in other countries and times, it formed part of the basis of Mahayana Buddhist traditions.

Pure Land oriented practices and concepts are found within basic Mahayana Buddhist cosmology, and form an important component of the Mahayana Buddhist traditions in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Tibet.[4] Chinese Chan and Tiantai schools, as well as the Japanese Shingon and Tendai sects have strong Pure Land components to their practice and belief. However, Pure Land Buddhism eventually became an independent school in its own right as can be seen in the Japanese Jōdo Shū and Jōdo Shinshū schools. In Japan there are several Pure Land sects, but throughout the history of Mahayana Buddhism there was never an independent Pure Land sect in other Mahayana countries.

One basic Mahayana Pure Land concept is that Nirvana (liberation, awakening, salvation) has become increasingly difficult to attain, and that only through devotion to Amitābha Buddha and looking towards Amida Buddha for guidance can one be reborn in the Pure Land, a perfect realm in which enlightenment is guaranteed. The Pure Land Path has been popular among both commoners and elite monastics as it provided a straightforward way of attaining salvation. In medieval Japan it was especially popular among those on the outskirts of society, such as prostitutes and social outcasts who, though often denied salvation by the mainstream traditions, were able to find solace in the newly formed Pure Land sect.


Pure Land Buddhism is based on the Pure Land sutras, first brought to China as early as 148 AD, when the Parthian monk Ān Shìgāo began translating sutras into Chinese at the White Horse Temple in the imperial capital of Luòyáng, during the Hàn dynasty. The Kushan monk Lokakśema, who arrived in Luòyáng two decades after An Shìgao, is often attributed with the earliest translations of the core sutras of Pure Land Buddhism. These sutras describe Amitābha and his Pure Land of Bliss, called Sukhāvatī.

Although Amitabha was mentioned or featured in a number of Buddhist sutras, the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life is often considered the most important and definitive. In this sutra, the Buddha describes to his assistant, Ānanda, how Amitabha, as an advanced monk named Dharmakara, made a great series of vows to save all beings, and through his great merit, created a realm called the Land of Bliss (Sukhavati).[5] This paradise would later come to be known as the Pure Land in Chinese translation.

Byodo-in in Uji

Byōdō-in that expressed Pure Land, 1053, Uji, Kyōto, Japan.

Pure Land Buddhism played a small role in early Indian Buddhism, particularly the Mahayana branch, but first became prominent with the founding of a monastery upon the top of Mount Lushan by Hui-yuan in 402. It quickly spread throughout China and was systematised by a series of elite monastic thinkers, namely Tanluan, Daochuo, Shandao, and others. The religious movement spread to Japan and slowly grew in prominence. Genshin (942-1017) made man of power's Fujiwara no Michinaga (966-1028) convert to Amitabha belief. Hōnen (1133–1212) established Pure Land Buddhism as an independent sect in Japan, known as Jōdo Shu. Today Pure Land is, together with Chan (Zen), the dominant form of Buddhism in China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Contemporary Pure Land traditions see Amitabha preaching the Dharma in his buddha-field (Sanskrit: buddhakṣetra), called the "Pure Land" (zh. 净土, pinyin jìngtǔ, jp. 浄土 jōdo, vi. Tịnh độ) or "Western Pureland" (Ch. 西天, pinyin xītiān), a region offering respite from karmic transmigration. The Vietnamese also use the term Tây Phương Cực Lạc (西方極樂) for "Western Land of Bliss", or more accurately, "Western Paradise". In such traditions, entering the Pure Land is popularly perceived as equivalent to the attainment of enlightenment. After practitioners attain enlightenment in the Pure Land, they have the choice of becoming a Buddha and entering nirvana or returning to any of the six realms as bodhisattvas to help all living beings in samsara.

Thus, adherents believe that Amitabha Buddha provided an alternative path towards attaining enlightenment: the Pure Land Path. In Pure Land Buddhist thought, Enlightenment is difficult to obtain without the assistance of Amitabha Buddha, since people are now living in a degenerate era, known as the Age of Dharma Decline. Instead of solitary meditative work toward enlightenment, Pure Land Buddhism teaches that devotion to Amitabha leads one to the Pure Land, where enlightenment can be more easily attained.

In medieval East Asian culture, this belief was particularly popular among peasants and individuals who were considered "impure", such as hunters, fishermen, those who tan hides, prostitutes and so on. Pure Land Buddhism provided a way to practice Buddhism for those who were not capable of practicing other forms. In fact, in the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life the Amitabha Buddha makes 48 vows, and the 18th Vow states that Amitabha will grant rebirth to his Pure Land to anyone who can recite his name as little as 10 times. It also states, Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offences and abuse the right Dharma. [5].

The Pure Land

The Pure Land is described in the Limitless Life Sutra as a land of beauty that surpasses all other realms. More importantly for the Pure Land practitioner, once one has been "born" into this land (birth occurs painlessly through lotus flowers), one will never again be reborn. In the Pure Land one will be personally instructed by Amitabha Buddha and numerous Bodhisattvas until one reaches full and complete enlightenment. In effect, being born into the Pure Land is akin to achieving enlightenment, through escaping samsara, the Buddhist concept of "the wheel of birth and death."

Pure Land Practice

Practitioners believe that chanting Amitābha Buddha's name, or the nianfo, during their current life allows them, at this life's end, to be received with their karma by Amitābha Buddha (帶業往生). The simplicity of this form of veneration has contributed greatly to its popularity throughout East Asia. This practice is called nembutsu in Japanese, or Buddha recitation, or "Being Mindful of the Buddha."

An alternate practise found in Pure Land Buddhism is meditation or contemplation of Amitābha or his Pure Land. The basis for this is found in the Contemplation Sutra, where The Buddha describes to Queen Vaidehi what Amitābha looks like and how to meditate upon him.[6] Visualization practises for Amitābha are more popular among esoteric Buddhist sects, such as Japanese Shingon Buddhism, while the nianfo is more popular among lay followers.

Some have claimed there is evidence of dying people going to the pure land, such as:

  • Knowing the time of death (預知時至) - some prepare by bathing and reciting the name of the Buddha Amitabha.
  • The "three saints in the west" (西方三聖) (Amitābha Buddha and the two bodhisattvas, Avalokiteśvara on his right and Mahāsthāmaprāpta on his left), appear and welcome the dying person. Visions of other buddhas or bodhisttvas are disregarded as they may be bad spirits disguising themselves, attempting to stop the person from entering the Pure Land.[7]
  • Records of practicing Pure Land Buddhists who have died have been known to leave clusters of crystallized bone fragments after cremation .

The last part of the body to become cold is the top of the head (posterior fontanelle). In Buddhist teaching, souls who enter the Pure Land leave the body through the fontanelle at the top of the skull. Hence, this part of the body stays warmer longer than the rest of the body. The Verses on the Structure of the Eight Consciousnesses (八識規矩補註)[8], reads: "to birth in saints the last body temperature in top of head, to deva in eyes, to human in heart, to hungry ghosts in belly, to animals in knee cap, to the hells-realm in sole of feet." See also: phowa.

The dying person may demonstrate some, but not necessarily all, of these evidences. For example, their facial expression may be happy, but they may not demonstrate other signs, such as sharira and dreams.

Eastern Pure Land

In Mahayana Buddhism, there are many Buddhas, and each Buddha has a Pure Land. For example, Amitabha's Pure Land is understood to be in the Western direction, whereas Akṣobhya's Pure Land (Abhirati), is in the East. While recognized by the Japanese Shingon sect, Eastern Pure Land Buddhism is less popular than Western Pure Land Buddhism. Though there are various traditions devoted to various Pure Lands, Amitabha's is by far the most popular.

Tibetan Pure Land

Tibetan Pure Land Buddhism has a long and innovative history dating from the 8th-9th centuries CE, the times of the Tibetan Empire, with the translation and canonization of the Sanskrit Sukhāvatīvyūha sūtras in Tibetan. Tibetan compositions of pure-land prayers and artistic renditions of Sukhāvatī in Central Asia date to that time. Tibetan pure-land literature forms a distinct genre (Tib. bde-smon) and encompasses a wide range of scriptures, "aspiration prayers to be born in Sukhāvatī", commentaries on the prayers and the sūtras, and meditations and rituals belonging to the Vajrayāna tradition. The incorporation of phowa (mind transference techniques) in pure-land meditations is textually attested in the 14th century, in the The Standing Blade of Grass (Tib. 'Pho-ba 'Jag-tshug ma), a terma text allegedly dating to the time of the Tibetan Empire. A good number of Buddhist treasure texts are dedicated to Buddha Amitābha and to rituals associated with his pure-land, while the wide acceptance of phowa in Tibetan death rituals may owe its popularity to pure-land Buddhism promoted by all schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

The terton Rigdzin Longsal Nyingpo (1625-1682/92 or 1685-1752) of Katok Monastery revealed a terma on pureland.[9] This terma entailed phowa during the bardo of dying, sending the mindstream to a pureland. This may evidence what some scholars have intimated as examples of successful, popular teachings disseminated from other localities such as China being codified within the Tibetan tradition; terma as cultural innovation.

Gyatrul (b.1924)[10], in a purport to the work of Chagmé (Wylie: Karma-chags-med, fl. 17th century), rendered into English by Wallace (Chagmé et al., 1998: p. 35), states:

It is important to apply our knowledge internally. The Buddha attained enlightenment in this way. The pure lands are internal; the mental afflictions are internal. The crucial factor is to recognize the mental afflictions. Only by recognizing their nature can we attain Buddhahood.[11]

References and Further Reading

Corless, Roger. 1989. ‘Pure Land and Pure Perspective: A Tantric Hermeneutic of Sukhāvatī.’ The Pure Land, New Series, 6: 205-17.

Halkias, T. Georgios. 2009. “Compassionate Aspirations and their fulfilment: Dol-po-pa’s A Prayer for Birth in Sukhāvatī .” In As Long As Space Endures: Essays on the Kālachakra Tantra in Honor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, pp. 259-275.

_____. 2006. “Pure-Lands and other Visions in Seventeenth-Century Tibet: a Gnam-chos sādhana for the pure-land Sukhāvatī revealed in 1658 by Gnam-chos Mi-’gyur-rdo-rje (1645-1667).” In Power, Politics and the Reinvention of Tradition: Tibet in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century, ed. B. Cuevas et al. Leiden: Brill Publishers, pp. 121-151.

______.2006. Transferring to the Land of Bliss: Among Sukhavati Texts and Practices. Doctoral Thesis. Oxford: University of Oxford.

Kajihama, Ryoshun. 2002a. Tibet no Jyōdo Shisō no Kenkyū (Japanese. The Study of Pure Land in Tibet). Kyoto: Nagata Bunshōdō.

______.2002b. “3rd rDo Gruchen Rinpoche’s Pure Land Thought (III).” Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies, 50/2: 984-87.

______.1996. “3rd rDo Gruchen Rinpoche’s Pure Land Thought (II).” Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies, 44/2: 948-52.

______.1994. “3rd rDo Gruchen Rinpoche’s Pure Land Thought (I).” Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies, 43/1: 492-98.

______.1991. “A Study of a Prayer Book on Rebirth in the Land of Bliss (Sukhāvatī) Written by Tsong kha pa.” Monograph published by the Faculty of International Language and Culture, Setsunan University, 23/3: 293-322.

Kapstein, Matthew. 2004. “Pure Land Buddhism in Tibet? From Sukhāvatī to the Field of Great Bliss.” In Approaching the Land of Bliss: Religious Praxis in the Cult of Amitābha, ed. R. Payne and K. Tanaka. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press,1-16.

______.1998. “A Pilgrimage of Rebirth Reborn: the 1992 Celebration of the Drigung Powa Chenmo”. In Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet, ed. M. Goldstein and M. Kapstein, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 95-119.

Mei, Ching Hsuan. 2004. “’Pho ba Liturgy in 14th Century Tibet.” Tibet Journal, XXIX/2: 47-70.

Silk, Jonathan. 1993. “The Virtues of Amitābha: A Tibetan Poem from Dunhuang.” Bükkyo Bunka Kenkyüjo Kiyö, 32.

See also

Ichijoji Kasai13bs4272


Tendai • Shingon
Pure Land • Zen


Saichō • Kūkai
Hōnen • Shinran
Dōgen • Eisai • Ingen

Sacred Texts

Avatamsaka Sutra
Lotus Sutra
Heart Sutra
Infinite Life Sutra
Glossary of
Japanese Buddhism


  1. "Amidism", Britannica Online Encyclopedia,
  2. "Amidism", The Columbia Encyclopedia,
  3. Welch, Practice of Chinese Buddhism, Harvard, 1967, page 396
  4. For Tibetan Pure Land Buddhism, see: Pure land
  5. 5.0 5.1 Larger Sutra of Immesurable Life: Part 1
  6. Contemplation Sutra
  7. 淨空法師佛學問答(死生篇)
  8. Taisho Tripitaka no 1865
  9. Khadro, Chagdud (1998, 2003). P'howa Commentary: Instructions for the Practice of Consciousness Transference as Revealed by Rigzin Longsal Nyingpo. Junction City, CA, USA: Pilgrims Publishing
  10. Source: [1] (accessed: Wednesday March 25, 2009)
  11. Chagmé, Karma (author, compiler); Gyatrul Rinpoche (commentary) & Wallace, B. Alan (translator) (1998). A Spacious Path to Freedom: Practical Instructions on the Union of Mahamudra and Atiyoga. Ithaca, New York, USA: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 9781559390712; ISBN 1559390719, p.35

Further reading

  • Eitel, Ernst J. Hand-Book of Chinese Buddhism, being a Sanskrit-Chinese Dictionary with Vocabularies of Buddhist Terms in Pali, Singhalese, Siamese, Burmese, Tibetan, Mongolian and Japanese (Second Edition). New Delhi, Madras: Asian Educational Services. 1992.

External links

cs:Čistá zeměno:Det Rene Land

ja:浄土教pt:Terra Pura ru:Буддизм Чистой Земли ta:சுகவதி பௌத்தம் th:นิกายสุขาวดี uk:Вчення Чистої Землі vi:Tịnh Độ tông zh:净土宗

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